By Monique Gooch
CHATTANOOGA, TN — The Chattanooga African American Museum was founded in 1983 and is located in an area once dubbed as the city’s black enterprise zone, (the famed 9th Street District) now known as M.L. King Boulevard. The
In 1996 a renovated facility became the new home of the Chattanooga African-American Museum and the Bessie Smith Hall. The facility was established to pay homage to the late “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith, through the establishment of a Performance Hall within the complex. The Bessie Smith Performance Hall has become well known in the Chattanooga community as an educational institution. What began as one organization is now housing two.
The museum closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus. “While everyone else closed down, we decided to use that time wisely and remodel,” said Marty Mitchell, the museum’s curator and Program Coordinator. Although the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is not yet complete, tourists are allowed to visit and take pictures of what they currently have.
When entering the museum, the African-American Museum lives to the right. The tour is self-guided and goes in a circle. In the first section tourists can view artifacts such as washboards slaves used to wash clothing, branding irons as well as slave chains. As tourists continue to move through the museum, they can learn about some very well known and not so well-known figures, such as Mary Walker who learned to read, write add and subtract at the tender age 117, after she attended one-hour classes two nights a week for more than a year.
Tourists go through time from civil rights to present current events, such as the celebration of Juneteenth and to the 2020 protests over police brutality. The exhibit includes the discussion about the 2021 Critical Race Theory in Education. Patrons are allowed to take pictures, but cannot sit on or touch anything because several artifacts are fragile. That section of the tour ends with masks from different parts of Africa and includes several pieces of African art.
“We tell the true story here,” said Mitchell. “We tell the good, the bad and the ugly.”
On the left is where we find the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. While this section of the museum is incomplete there is still plenty to see. Inside lives the infamous see-through sequin black dress Bessie Smith wore along with her white gloves. There is also the piano Bessie Smith played while performing in Chattanooga.
While the B.S.C.C. is a work in progress Mitchell says not to worry, “we’re currently working on funding. We’re going to finish as soon as we get enough money to do it. People can always donate to us as well. We’re currently looking for partners for us to get phase two off the ground.”
There is an event coming up in October and Bessie Smith’s great-great granddaughter Beverly will be in attendance.
For more information on how to donate or to get information about the museum please visit www.bessiesmithcc.org or call 423-266-8658.
By Monique Gooch